For millions of girls around the world, motherhood comes too early. Those who bear children as adolescents suffer higher maternal mortality and morbidity rates, and their children are more likely to die in infancy. One reliable way to solve this problem is through education. The more affordable it is, the longer girls will stay in school and delay pregnancy.
I advise a nonprofit foundation called Innovation for Poverty Action that focuses on keeping girls in school. (We aren’t alone; lots of other terrific organizations do this, too.) In a pilot program we ran in Kenya a few years ago, around 5,000 sixth-grade girls in 163 primary schools were given a $6 school uniform free. If they stayed in school, they received a second uniform after 18 months. The dropout rate over the next three years decreased by a third, to 12 percent, and the pregnancy rate fell to 8 percent from 12 percent. Of every 50 girls given free uniforms, then, three stayed in school as a result of the uniforms alone, and two delayed pregnancy.
The benefits of secondary education are even greater. In the same group of Kenyan girls, 50 percent of those who dropped out after primary school had a child within two years, but only 8 percent who went on to secondary school became pregnant in that same period.
Yet staying in school presents severe economic challenges, particularly in the developing world. Each year in Ghana, for instance, about 50,000 of the students who pass the qualifying exam for secondary school do not enroll because they cannot pay the fees. For this reason, we started last year to offer scholarships to 682 of these children, half of them girls, (at a cost of about $100 a year per child). Eighty percent immediately enrolled.
These educated girls will become healthy mothers; their decision to hold off on bringing children into the world will benefit generations to come.
Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at M.I.T.